Families blog – More than history

Ann Rennie 2 February 2024

The Way of the Cross pilgrimage in Israel is a framework for our lives, not just a walk through history.

One of the ritual practices of the Christian community on a hushed and sombre Good Friday is to pray before the Stations of the Cross. Each station records Jesus’ journey as he stumbled towards Calvary.

Last year, I made a pilgrimage to Israel with my dear friend Maria. We stayed with the Sisters of Sion in Ecce Homo on the Via Dolorosa, a couple of doors up from Barrabas’ prison cave. The Sisters have their own beautiful basilica and the pilgrim house is built over first-century Roman paving considered to be where Jesus was tried by Pontius Pilate. Ecce Homo is the Latin translation of Pilate saying Behold the man and the starting point for pilgrims following the Way of the Cross.

At Station Four (today a busy intersection in the Muslim quarter) Jesus meets his mother. One can only imagine Mary’s own grief as she sees her son scourged and scorned. She knows his mission but this cannot assuage the brokenness in her heart. She is his first and last disciple; there at the cradle and at the cross. She experiences what Luke 2:35 foretold with the sword piercing her soul as her son is crucified like a common criminal.

At Station Five on the corner of the buzzing El Wad St where Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus to carry the cross, there is an ancient handprint etched in stone and so we dutifully touched this and took photos – emblematic perhaps of what we can do in our lives to help others carry their burdens.

Long tradition, fuelled perhaps by the medieval imagination, has enshrined a small act of compassion into a hallowed story, although no scriptural evidence attests this. At Station Six, it is Veronica, an ordinary woman in the crowd lining the street, who takes off her veil to wipe Jesus’ bloodied and bruised face.

It was her immediate heart-wrenching human response to his pain. What must Jesus have felt at this woman’s touch? And what did she see in those eyes, rheumy with blood, sweat and tears? The torn body of a man who loved beyond loving.

Veronica’s act shows us that it is the strong thread of compassion that binds us together as a human family; that the touch of kindness can offer consolation in the darkest hours. If we cannot offer even the smallest solace ­– a kind word, a hug, a helping hand, a solicitous smile, to one of our own in their sorrow, let alone their most harrowing hours, then what distinguishes us as humans is extinguished.

We found the back way into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre via the almost hidden Station Nine, clambering over roofs and descending through the small Ethiopian chapels to the main entrance. We jostled gently with others of faith to covet the spot where Jesus is reputed to have died. For us, and so many, this is so much more than a long-ago history in a small outpost of the sprawling Roman Empire. It is the framework of our lives.

We became accustomed to dealing with shekels and queuing to visit holy sites, talking with other pilgrims and sitting out at night on the Ecce Homo terrace looking over this remarkable city and pinching ourselves that we were here. This, finally, was an imagined chapter come blessedly to life.

As we witness the plights of those around us, perhaps we can stand out from the crowd and reach out in physical or prayerful solidarity, as Mary, Simon and Veronica did. We can offer our support to those who suffer under the daily burden of the crosses they have to bear.

Ann Rennie is a Melbourne writer, teacher and former REC. She believes in the Good News and the power of words to change the world.


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